Model Cars Posts

Odd, Obscure, Out-of-the-Ordinary: 10 More Unusual Model Car Brands

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Over the past couple of years, we’ve shared some brands of diecast vehicles that are off the beaten path, obscure, or just plain odd. Some of them are offshoots of famous brands, some of from other countries and never widely distributed worldwide, and some disappeared quickly for various reasons. Some of these unusual model car brands have strange histories, some occupy weird niches, and some of them make really exquisite models. What they have in common is that you haven’t heard of most of them… until now.aurora vibrators

Aurora Vibrators

The original early 1960s Aurora slot cars were slow, and not really ideal for racing. And they emitted a loud buzzing noise, resulting in the name “Vibrators.” Yikes! In the mid 1960s, the company upgraded the chassis for performance with faster engines and wider tires (which sometimes required cutting a bigger fender opening on older castings. And despite the loud name, the new ThunderJet chassis was also much quieter.

AJ’s Race Savers

aj's race saversSpeaking of slot cars, AJ’s was best known for their accessories and “hop-up” kits to make your cars perform better. They created their own segment of slot vehicle, however, with the Oscar Track Cleaner. These were futuristic street cleaner designs that actually functioned to clean the metal electrical rails in the tracks. The design was expanded to add ambulances and other trackside vehicles. Neat and clean!

Maxwell Toys

maxwell toysVehicles from this Calcutta brand fell into two categories: crude knockoffs of other diecast brands like Matchbox and Tootsietoy, or crude original models inspired by other diecast brands. There is something sadly funny about the ill-fitting, weirdly proportioned parts that makes you want to give them a home. Also, the box art is pretty great across the board.

Fine model

This was a curious brand from Japan… Every modestly detailed 1/43 car they made appears to be a sedan shape. No fastbacks, convertibles, wagons, trucks. Just sensible, Japanese sedans. Nothing fancy. Just, well, Fine.

Kawabata Kikaku

Kawabata Kikaku mazda cosmoLike Fine Models, this company made only models of 1/43 JDM vehicles. Unlike Fine, they were a bit better detailed and had a lot more variety, including sports cars, wagons, ragtops, and even a nice miniature of the legendarily strange and wonderful Mazda Cosmo.

Nakajima Dreamcar

Nakajima DreamcarAnother obscure Japanese brand, this company thought outside the box. Their niche was fantastic concept cars like the Ferrari Modulo or the Fiat Abarth Coupe 2000. These are cars that largely don’t exist from other diecast companies, so they are rather unusual.

Amaze-A-Matics

hasbro amaze a maticsIn the late ’60s, Hasbro produced “The Fantastic Car with a Brain.” These models were propelled by a drive system similar to an old computer punch card that dictated when the car would turn, stop or back up. The first batch included an early GT-40 and three very rare American concept cars. In fact, this might be the only model of the Buick Century Cruiser show car ever made. Later models (a Dune Buggy and a VW Beetle) were designed for customization including larger rear wheels and other features. These were released as Computacars by Mettoys in the U.K.

Wiz-z-zers Spin Buggys

This was a spin-off from another toy… literally. In the early ‘70s, Mattel created a line of gyroscopic spinning tops called Wiz-z-zers. Instead of the old method of pulling a string to spin the top, these had a built in friction motor with intense gearing that would let them spin for a really long time when revved up on that delicate hardwood floor. (Sorry Mom and Dad!) As cool as that was, the company also made the Spin Buggys (sic), a pair of vehicles that were motivated by firing up the top and dropping it into a hole in the roof so it engaged the rear axle for instant acceleration. You could choose from a blue funny car-esque model or an orange C-Cab delivery van. Both were made of thin, lightweight, flexible plastic, so while they moved quickly, they were also very delicate and few examples have likely survived.

The Essence Of The Car

essence of the carThis is a case where odd is beautiful. Imagine illustrating the most iconic features of a unique classic car in a few brush strokes… The Essence of The Car basically does that in 3 dimensions. These models are really abstract sculptures that use minimal shapes to unmistakably capture, well, the essence of a particular design.

Avon

avon mail jeepSure, you could give your 1970s man aftershave for Fathers Day or his birthday… but if that scented, burning liquid came in a car-shaped bottle, even better. Avon offered their wares in all kinds of shapes (including a mail box for the “First Class Male.”) But the most collectible were the vehicle based ones such as a Ferrari, Jaguar XKE, Corvette, and a U.S. Mail Jeep for that “Extra Special Male.”

Did you have any of these when they were new? Do you collect them now? Let us know in the comments!

Hot Wheels 50th Anniversary Special: Making History on TV

hot wheels history channel

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

In case you missed it Thursday night, The History Channel aired a one hour “Hot Wheels 50th Anniversary Special” with plenty of interviews, diecast images and video, and, well, history of the brand.

Larry Wood, who has been one of the principal designers for the brand since almost the beginning, had a lot to say. (“We weren’t even paying Barbie’s taxes,” joked Wood about the humble beginnings compared to Mattel’s other big brand.) So did Jay Leno, known for his very large collection of full size cars, but also an enthusiast of the smaller ones. And several current designers, who clearly enjoy their jobs more than most people ever will.

hot wheels history channel Some of the most compelling bits during the hour were the vintage commercial clips, with bombastic announcers and amazingly well-shot footage of Hot Wheels cars in action. If you’re a certain age right now (Hot Wheels’ 50 plus a few years to be old enough to have gotten in on the ground floor), those commercials were the voice of God, speaking directly to your 5, 6, 7, ten-or-so-year-old self.

Discovering that the oil crisis in the ‘70s threatened to kill the brand? A terrifying glimpse into a sad alternate reality. Finding out that the orange track started out as garage door seals turned upside down? Let’s just say a good part of your happy childhood was discovered by accident.

hot wheels history channel zarnockAside from Leno, the most screen time from a non-Mattel employee went to Mike Zarnock (“Hot Wheels Expert/Collector” according to one on screen blurb.) Zarnock, is of course, a legendary historian and ambassador for the brand. Seeing photos of Harry Bradley’s custom El Camino, which served as the basis for the Custom Fleetside was a blast.

According to professional Diecast customizer Chris Walker, “To make the perfect car, many cars have to die.” Really, as much as we like to protect and preserve our Hot Wheels, taking them out of the package and making them less than mint condition is what makes them so beloved. And if you can chop and reassemble them into something new, then you get to turn playtime into a career.

hot wheels history channel walkerZarnock and Walker originally didn’t expect to have as much screen time when first approached by the History Channel. “My role in the show initially was just going to be just to say a few words about Hot Wheels and the hobby at the Dallas Hot Wheels Nationals,” said Walker. “After talking with them and showing them on camera all about room to room shopping and what we do, they went  changed up the direction of things based on the chemistry of myself and Mike Zarnock.”

A lot of the show centered on the quest to design “HW50,” the car that is supposed to sum up the entire 50th Anniversary. Designed to be a  “statement of our heritage and our future,” the car is being built as a 1/64  model and a 1,000 HP running full-size replica. (Yes, the real car will be a replica of the model. It’s been done before, actually… ) The amount of 3-D CAD rendering used to design the car is both mind-blowing and a bit melancholy. Revealed in sketches and painted prototypes, HW50 looks to be a suitably retro yet modern car that should honor the legacy of the brand.

hot wheels history channel

This is about the best look you get at the HW50 until Fall.

As far as reliving your childhood through collecting, there are different takes on that. Walker, whose collection started with the Mach 5 inspired Second wind, but now owns over 10,000 Hot Wheels Cars said “A lot of people say collecting is our way of buying back our childhood. I say it’s more buying the childhood we never had.”

Expect the Hot Wheels 50th Anniversary Special to show up on The History Channel many times over the next few weeks, and also to make it online eventually.

hot wheels history channel

Penny Pinching, Processes and Practicality: Possible Pitfalls of Diecast Design

Matchbox cityWe recently told you the histories of Matchbox Senior Designer Steve Moye and Master Modelmaker Rob Romash, part of the talented team that created many of the brand’s model vehicles in the early 2000s. As much fun as they had working there, not every project goes through without a hitch. From misinterpretations to budget cuts to secretive licensees, here are some of Moye’s more interesting stories about projects that ran into an extra challenge somewhere on the journey from initial sketch to hanging on the pegs. We’ll leave it mostly in his own words…

Simplifying the Process

Matchbox Dune Buggy

The challenge with this Dune Buggy: use as few parts as possible.

How many parts in a diecast model? As many as it takes, right? In some cases, the company might dictate that a vehicle must be made of a limited number of parts regardless of design… “This 2003 Matchbox Dune Buggy was the result of an internal cost-cutting experiment, trying to see if it was possible to design and produce a marketable rescue-themed three-part vehicle (chassis, body, and interior… existing parts such as wheels and axles don’t count in that number). It was eventually adapted for use as a McDonald’s offering. We also were able to add a promotional Fire Engine and a Police Car for
McDonald’s, based on the three-part concept.””

Fighting for Extra Features

Matchbox garbage truck

A trash truck has to have moving parts, right?

Sometimes it takes extra effort and cost to make a working model, but in the end, the results can be worth the struggle… “This Trash Truck actually works as a pickup/dump vehicle with its own separate trash bin. It was a real internal battle to fight for the additional parts, and win, but the extra cost made this toy possible.

Battling Budget Cuts

Matchbox City Police Car

Some of the finer details of this model were lost in translation.

Sometimes management dictates a change to the processes that have worked for so long, resulting in a new learning curve… “In 2004, Mattel implemented some cost cutting measures by moving part of the design modeling process overseas. Issues surfaced early and often, when sources in Asia tried to translate sketches, orthographic and exploded views into Solidworks files. It took many back & forths in e-mails and telephone discussions for them to even be able to get us something that wasn’t ‘block-ish.’ I don’t dislike the final result, but….I’m also confident that had we involved Rob Romash  in the process, the final ’04 City Police Car -particularly the upper front fenders and other crucial areas– would’ve been much more to my liking.”

Meeting Marketing Demands

Matchbox ladder truck

Freed up from marketing demands, this fire truck turned out much better than previous designs.

Corporate management can sometimes make demands of a design that are hard to work with… “After an attempt at adding more kid-oriented, animated vehicles (a few of which I also designed) to Matchbox’s 3″ 1-75 lineup, some of us were able to convince management into getting our model shop back into the process. The last Matchbox Fire Truck embodied elements which I learned over the previous four years designing 3″ vehicles; plus, I wasn’t encumbered with trying to design vehicles with exaggerated ‘super-heroic’ width proportions.”

Being freed up from those demands led to some great work. “The result was what I consider to be my best non-licensed fire truck, and Rob did his always-superb job of translating my sketches into the final 3-D model and finished product. These models would eventually wind up as Matchbox’s last Mt. Laurel NJ-sourced products before the facility closed.”

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise

Matchbox City Bus

The sides on the bus go ’round and ’round (unless they ended up being straight).

Some designs aren’t easy to produce with traditional modeling processes, resulting in unexpected compromises… “On this 2005 Matchbox City Bus model, the difference between what I proposed and what Rob carved out, (a bus with rounded sides and front end) and what Mattel wound up producing (flat sides) is huge. This major change was only discovered when the production City Bus hit the store pegs, long after Mattel Mt. Laurel’s closing.””

Copyright Complaints

Matchbox trash truck

An original design, but someone apparently thought it looked familiar.

Sometimes a design issue catches you completely off guard… “This trash truck was an original unlicensed design that shouldn’t have run into any issues. But apparently the rear crush area raised some questions with an original manufacturer of trash trucks. The design was eventually produced, however so they worked it out.”

Uncovering Corporate Secrets

Matchbox C6 Corvette

General Motors was secretive and (accidentally) very helpful with this ‘Vette.

Sometimes a licensed design is the subject of cloak and dagger work. You have the permission of the licensee, but they are only able to help you so much… “The last licensed vehicle I was involved in was Matchbox’s 2005 Corvette C6. The big problem: because of secrecy issues, GM was loathe to submit detailed information to us! Their 3D files were as vague (blobs!) as I’ve ever seen, almost unusable. So, I was forced to gather as many ’05 ‘Vette magazine ‘spy shots’ as I could find, do my best to draw them up, and take them over to Rob Romash to make a plausible 1/64 model. Given what we were and weren’t given, Rob did a fantastic job, in a rush situation, making a C6 model that GM reviewed and easily approved.

Every now and then, luck smiles on the designer in such situations, however… “Towards the end, GM mistakenly sent us a 1/18 scale Hot Wheels prototype of the same ‘Vette! Having that at our disposal allowed us to add an accurate underneath chassis, and to double-check the exterior details which Rob and I discerned. Amazingly, Rob only had to tweak a few minor areas before painting and submitting the final 1/64 scale model.”

 

 

 

Drawing Conclusions: Steve Moye Recalls His Days as a Matchbox Designer

steve moye matchboxA couple weeks ago, we brought you the story of Rob Romash, Master Modelmaker for Matchbox in the early 2000s. His ability to translate sketches and technical drawings into perfect prototype carvings was amazing, and he was responsible for most of the castings of that era. Now, meet Steve Moye,  the creator of most of those designs. 
matchbox steve moye

Former Matchbox Senior Product Designer with one of his all time favorite creations.

Moye worked with Romash at Mattel in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, from 2000-2005 as the Senior Product Designer. “I worked on almost all of the non-licensed basic (3” long) Matchbox vehicles, plus launcher-type toy vehicles and two special marketing/packaging diecast-related toy products,” he said. “Also, during the last eight months of the Mt. Laurel operation, I was also responsible for the licensed 3” long vehicle design process, including selections and graphic decoration designs. Rob Romash and I had a very special designer-modelmaker relationship. In the five years that Rob and I worked together at Mattel, he always seemed able to translate my ideas into three-dimensional reality, many times on-the-fly, and always arriving at great aesthetic and functional solutions in a timely manner.”

Matchbox cars could be grouped into two categories: licensed designs (based on real cars or pre-existing designs from elsewhere), or unlicensed designs (newly imagined vehicles.) The key to the unlicensed cars was to make them plausible in function and aesthetics without stepping on any copyrights, while still giving these little rolling vehicles play and collector value and doing it mostly with three or four manufactured parts, for retail at $1.00 each. In other words, the designer’s responsibility was to create a vehicle that looks and rolls like a real-ish car, but not like any particular brand.

steve moye matchbox taxi 2

Moye worked on the sketches and technical drawings for most Matchbox 3″ offerings in the early 2000s, such as this Taxi.

One of the first steps to designing a new model was figuring out what exactly Matchbox wanted to offer for sale. “There would be internal discussions of what models in Matchbox’s 1-75 lineup were outgoing, where we had new opportunities for our offerings, and what we needed to replace,” he said. “We needed X number of cars to fulfill some new purpose, to fit into an overall marketing theme.” 

That’s when Steve’s task would begin. For licensed vehicles, straight interpretations of actual cars and trucks, there was no need to create concepts. “On those, the manufacturer would oftentimes submit a folder of photos and measurements; then, it was straight to tech drawings.” His ability to translate those materials was no doubt helped by his previous jobs in the design departments at Chrysler and Subaru. His understanding of automotive design, both engineering and aesthetic, made him a natural for model car design.

steve moye matchbox fire truck

Some designs translate from sketch to production without any discernible changes like this 4×4 Fire Truck.

Early on, Steve jumped pencil-first into projects in progress, and eventually became part of the Matchbox die-cast decision-making team, headed by Trevor Hayes, Rob Butkiewicz, Jim Carty and Berdj Mazmanian. “When I first started working at Mattel Mt. Laurel in early 2000, I didn’t have much leeway in selecting vehicle types because we were in a crunch to get the design process on already-approved vehicles going.” Moye said. “Eventually, I also became involved in the vehicle selection process, too. While a specific design was being created, I did have quite a bit of leeway in changing and improving aesthetics and functionality before a vehicle received its final mid-management and upper management review and approval.”

Another challenge at Mattel was to avoid stepping on toes at the company’s other big diecast brand, Hot Wheels. Hot Wheels generally was the domain of flashy fantasy racers, while Matchbox became the brand known for more realistic, down-to-earth models. The goal: a $1.00 product that was realistic, but to save Mattel royalty fees, often not based on a real car. Hot Wheels was also becoming the brand for older kids and collectors, while conversely, Matchbox was being marketed to the younger kids. “A lot of the collectors and Matchbox purists didn’t like that shift away from licensed designs,” he said. “Collectors understandably wanted more of the realism that was part of Matchbox history.”

steve moye matchbox dump truck

This dump truck was aimed squarely at Tonka’s foray into 1/64 diecast.

In total, Steve created 70 die-cast vehicles for Matchbox in his five-year stint at Mattel Mt. Laurel, plus two launchers and two diecast-related packaging designs. When one multiplies that figure by the number of vehicles each die cast tooling mold set is capable –a conservative estimate is 100,000 cyles-per-mold set– of making, it’s easy to conclude that his rolling creations easily got into the hands of millions of worldwide scale model car collectors, both young and old.

Whereas Romash sort of stumbled into his prodigious career at Mattel by turning a hobby into a job, Moye took a more calculated route. “My San Jose State University Bachelor of Science degree is in Industrial Design; before that, I attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena CA, preceded by a correspondence course –Academy of Automobile Design- in car design,” he said. Since age 12, Steve’s career goal was to design cars, just maybe not in miniature. “Incidentally, I was the only correspondence student to actually complete the entire course. J. Bruce Bollinger, AAD’s originator and the designer of Chevy’s original Nomad, actually had to create new courses for me, and those led to my first vehicle design portfolio.”

steve moye exoto gt 40

Moye’s AutoCad work for Exoto, translating real production cars into detailed 1/18 scale models.

Prior to Mattel, he held a similar job at Paramount Industries in Philadelphia designing for the Franklin Mint and Exoto, among other clients. Automotive design conceptualization, however, wasn’t part of the process at Paramount, as their models were exclusively based on existing classics; hence, his work on die-cast classic vehicles involved technical drawings, with an occasional on-site photo shoot/documentation session for good measure. “The big challenge for ‘The Mint’ was that many of the cars were vintage ones so at times, we had to find a collector with a restored car to document and use as a guide. There were no company archives of material to work with, because many of the auto companies don’t exist anymore.”

steve moye matchbox carrying case

Moye designed this carrying case while he worked at Mattel.

Over his six-year stint at Mattel, he rarely ran into any issues with designs which closely resemble a copyrighted design. “I did a trash truck in 2005 before the Mt. Laurel operation was given notice to shut down, an original design,” Moye said. “But I later heard that one of the OEM manufacturers thought the back end of the truck looked too much like their rear crush mechanism compartment.” Aside from that, the vast majority of the designs he worked on while at Midlantic Drive in Mt. Laurel, NJ went into production with relatively few hitches. Steve still has a collection Matchbox models, many of which emanated from the entire design process; a few are shown here.

steve moye matchbox taxi 2

The final production model can take on many variants, resulting in tens or hundreds of thousands of copies.

Moye and Romash have remained in touch over the years, fondly remembering their days creating the toys and collectibles that fueled the imagination of kids everywhere. “Mattel Mount Laurel was such a great place to work. The place was staffed with good, friendly, talented and skilled people, from the executives on down to the marketers, the graphics folks, the engineers, the product planners, the separate modelmaking staff which Rob Romash was a big part of, all of the creative folks over in the Matchbox Collectibles, Tyco RC, and Tyco divisions, my hard-working graphic design compadres Christine Peterson, Jeff Osnato and John Mullane in Matchbox 1-75 and, last but not least, Midlantic Drive’s great support staff. I was sad to see it close.”

Citroën DS: A History Through Model Cars

A Guest Blog from Patrick Wehr, owner of Pat’s Modellauto and carcollectorsgarage.com and also a Curator and Champion at hobbyDB.

 

The Citroën DS19 was the successor of the Traction Avant and was first presented at the Paris Motor Show on October 5, 1955. During the first 15 minutes of the Motor Show, 743 orders for the futuristic new car were taken, and a total of 12,000 orders was reached at the end of that day. By the end of the show, after 10 days, some 80,000 cars were ordered, which was a record which stood for over 60 years, though Insiders think that those selling numbers were only a marketing trick.

 

 

The car was designed by the Italian sculptor and industrial designer Flaminio Bertoni, as well as by André Lefèbvre, a French aeronautical engineer. The futuristic hydro-pneumatic self-leveling suspension was developed by Paul Magès. The car was such a success for aesthetics and engineering that it has inspired countless scale models.

 

The car was manufactured from 1955 to 1975 as a sedan, wagon/estate, and convertible. It was also the first production car that was equipped with disc brakes.

 

The DS used hydraulics for the power steering, the brakes, the suspension, the clutch and the transmission. In fact, with all that new technology it was a very expensive car, so Citroën decided in 1957 to produce the cheaper ID19. This car would have a conventional transmission, a simplified power-braking system and lack power steering. The ID was also not as powerful or luxurious. Maximum power for the ID19 was 69hp compared to 75hp for the DS. The ID submodel was produced from 1957-1969.

In 1962 the nose was redesigned and designated as Series 2. The car was more aerodynamically efficient and had also better ventilation. It was now available with an optional set of driving lights mounted on the front fenders.

 

French President Charles de Gaulle survived an assassination attempt at Le Petit-Clamart near Paris on August 22, 1962 while in a DS. The plan was to ambush the motorcade with machine guns, disable the vehicles, and then close in for the kill. De Gaulle praised the unusual abilities of his unarmored DS with saving his life – the car was peppered with bullets, and the shots had punctured the tires, but the car could still escape at full speed.

 

From October 4, 1955 to April 24, 1975 a total of 1,456,115 cars of the D-Series were built.

 

In late 1967 another new nose design with directional headlights came, now called the Series 3. That 1968 model of the ID/DS series had four headlights under a glass canopy. The inner lights swiveled with the steering wheel. For the US market this feature was not allowed, so a version with four exposed headlights was made for the US market.

In 1970 the ID was replaced by the D Spécial and the D Super. The D Super 5 was a D Super with the DS21 engine and a 5 speed gearbox. It was produced from 1970-1975.

 

The most collectable and rare variants are the convertibles produced from 1958-1973. They were built by the French Carrossier Henri Chapron for the Citroën dealer network. Only 1,365 Convertibles were sold, due to the high price of that variant. On these, a special frame was used, which was similar but not identical to the frame of the Break variants.

 

Various variants

 

Before the war, Chapron built some custom made bodies for Talbot-Lago, Delage and Delahaye. In 1955 he turned his attention to Citroën, and he was commissioned to build a Décapotable for the French President based on a 15CV Traction. At the Paris Salon in 1958, he showed his first DS based creation, known as the Cabriolet DS19 Henri Chapron.

 

 

In addition to the range of special Citroëns, Chapron also built the Prestige and the “Usine Cabriolets” for Citroën. Chapron also built a special elongated DS for the President de Gaulle.

 

The Michelin Citroën DS PLR Break, “Fast Truck” or nicknamed “Mille Pattes,” was a tire evaluation car. It was based on a DS Break and was built in 1972 by the French tire manufacturer Michelin, who was a shareholder of Citroën. It was used on the Ladoux test-track in Clermont-Ferrand.

 

Here a DS19 from Vitesse for the 40 Anniversary of the DS (1955-1995)

 

The DS was successful in motorsports and won the Rally Monte-Carlo in 1959. The 1000 Lakes Rally was also won by a DS in 1962. In 1966, the DS won the Monte Carlo Rally again. The DS was still competitive in the 1974 London-Sahara-Munich World Cup Rally where it beat over 70 other cars, only five of which even completed the entire event.